Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 6

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John Calvin was not a Calvinist. Many of the marks of Calvinism today—namely, adherence to one or more Reformed creeds (e.g., Westminster Confessions of Faith)—are theological developments intended by Calvin’s followers to maintain trajectories that Calvin began. However, Calvin and Calvinism are not the same thing.

There has always been some degree of scholarly disagreement of how much later Calvinism actually reflected the spirit and teaching of Calvin himself, but that is a topic we do not need to address. There is continuity and discontinuity with any tradition as it develops. Calvin’s followers remained in those general trajectories while also acting them out in their own way, given their own particular circumstances.

The dimension of the Calvinist legacy I want to begin addressing here is biblical interpretation in what is often referred to as the “Old Princeton” school. Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812 to provide intellectual training to pastors in the Reformed tradition, specifically in the British strand of that tradition, largely seen in the Puritan movement. (The Dutch Reformed tradition is not the same animal, and we will touch on that tradition’s contribution at another time). Princeton also became a center of intellectual advancement of Calvinism, particularly in response to the challenges of modern biblical criticism coming out of Europe and making its way to America.

The term “Old Princeton” is used by those who reflect negatively on Princeton’s theological shift in the early twentieth century as it embraced certain developments in modern biblical scholarship, primarily more “modernist” views of Scripture (see below). Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) was founded in 1929 in order to continue the legacy of Princeton before these theological shifts, although various schools today claim to be the heirs to theological legacy of “Old Princeton.”

The reason it is important to focus on the Old Princeton school is that much of contemporary Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism owe their view of Scripture to trajectories set during this early stage in Princeton’s history. Men such as Charles Hodge (theology), B. W. Warfield (theology/New Testament) and William Henry Green (Old Testament) developed intellectual models for the doctrine of Scripture and its proper interpretation. Wherever notions of inspiration, inerrancy, and revelation are discussed in contemporary Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (including the two “Chicago Statements” of Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics), there is a clear debt to be paid to Old Princeton and how these issues were being worked out then in the face of various challenges.

How these issues were worked out have a direct bearing on how many understand the nature of Scripture today. It also has direct bearing on how the science/faith conversation is conducted in many Christian communities today, particularly in presenting obstacles to that conversation, although I feel it need not be so.

The Historical Moment

To understand the theological trajectories set in the nineteenth century, it is vital that we be reminded of what was happening then.

There were three intellectual challenges in the nineteenth century to how people understood the nature of Scripture and its interpretation. In reality, there were more than three but I am approaching this from the vantage point of my discipline of biblical studies. Historians will note how a major social issue -- slavery in America -- also challenged traditional notions of biblical authority. The church was divided over whether slavery could be defended on biblical grounds. The fact that both sides used the same Bible to make opposite ironclad cases raised an obvious issue at the time: what good is biblical authority if it can be pressed into service to support opposite views? What good in an inerrant Bible if it can’t even help us solve such a pressing moral issue of our time? Some would even suggest that the slavery issue raised greater doctrinal concerns than European higher criticism.

The three pressing issues of the day we will look at, however, were:

(1) European Higher Criticism that challenged, among other things, traditional views of the authorship of biblical books, especially the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and Daniel. One reason why this was considered such a huge issue was that proponents on both sides assumed that eye-witness authorship assured some degree of historical accuracy, whereas later authorship cast aspersions on the historicity of Scripture. Old Princeton’s academic energy, at least in biblical studies, was focused almost entirely on defending traditional views of authorship for this reason. Historicity is a major issue—perhaps the major issue—that affects the science/faith issue with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists today.

(2) Biblical Archaeology brought into the academic discussion of Scripture the question of the cultural context of Scripture. Israel’s Scripture could now be compared and contrasted with the religions of the larger, and older, neighboring cultures (Babylonian, Egypt, Canaanite). This, too, affected our understanding of the extent to which the Old Testament in particular conforms to modern notions of historicity.

(3) Scientific advances, namely geology and biology, essentially synced with the previous two factors to challenge the historical veracity of Genesis and other portions of Scripture.

These three factors converged upon Christians in the nineteenth century, and Princeton’s faculty was centered on providing an intellectual, Reformed engagement of modern developments. The result was a mixed bag. At times we see innovation of older views, sometimes uneasy acceptance of change, and also, at the end of the day, a rigorous and intellectual defense of inerrancy and the historical reliability of Scripture.

Princeton in the nineteenth century has had a tremendous influence on contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Its defense of such things as the inspiration of Scripture, inerrancy, and Protestant/Reformed orthodoxy paved the way for how many continue to approach these and other issues. What is not always appreciated, however, is another side of the Old Princeton legacy: a creative, honest, intellectual rigor about addressing new challenges and rethinking older beliefs if necessary.

We will look at some examples in the next post, but one of those areas where Old Princeton pushed the church was on the matter of evolution. Both B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge accepted some form of evolution because they felt that the scientific evidence demanded it. They were also fully convinced, much to the chagrin of their critics, that there was no necessary conflict between the scientific explanation of origins and Scripture.

The dynamic tension between these progressive and conservative impulses in Old Princeton has left to contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism a dual legacy: serious intellectual engagement and progress in theological formulations in view of new evidence and a traditional/conservative formulation of the nature of Scripture. This dual legacy continues to reverberate today whenever issues arise that challenge existing doctrinal formulation.

One of those areas is evolution in the face of continued, significant scientific progress since the time of the Warfield and Hodge. Simply put, is the Old Princeton legacy best served by embracing its progressive spirit in view of the overwhelming evidence of common descent today, or is the Old Princeton legacy best expressed in maintaining its specific doctrinal conclusions despite scientific advances? To put it more pointedly, does the Old Princeton legacy require continued progress in our thinking or guard against it? Many of the tensions in contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism over evolution (and other issues) is an outworking of this very tension of how to be “faithful to the past.”

In my next post, we will begin looking at some examples of how Old Princeton handled the three pressing matters mentioned above, and how they came to understand the nature of inspiration. Both of these factors have had a lasting impact on contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, and therefore on how the specific conversation between science and faith has proceeded.




Enns, Pete. "Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 6"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 January 2018.


Enns, P. (2011, April 13). Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 6
Retrieved January 16, 2018, from /blogs/archive/evolution-and-our-theological-traditions-calvinism-part-6

About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs. 

More posts by Pete Enns